Companions’ Blog

Holy Cross Day

Around the year 325, Emperor Constantine sent his mother Helena to the Holy Land to erect churches on the sites associated with the birth, life, and death of Jesus.

Crosses carved by pilgrims into a wall of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem.  (Yair Talmor, Wikimedia Commons).The Jerusalem Helena came to bore no resemblance to the city Jesus knew. Even the name “Jerusalem” no longer existed. The Romans had been so angered by the Jewish revolts in the decades following the crucifixion that in the early second century they had levelled the old city, and on its rubble had built a new, pagan city, which they called Aelia Capitolina.

The old city may have gone, but it lived on in the memories of the Christians who still lived there. When Helena asked them about the place of Christ’s crucifixion and burial, they had no doubts. They took her to a particular spot, and, pointing down, said, “Here.” “Here” was a temple dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite. What Helena was seeking, the people said, was buried here. A few metres in any direction, and the work would have been much easier, but it had to be “Here.” And so they set to work. They dismantled the temple, they broke up the great stone platform on which it stood, and they cleared away tonnes of rubble, the remains of the old city.

When the rubble had been cleared away they were standing on the floor of an old quarry that, in the time of Jesus, had already been abandoned – a wild, overgrown place off the main road just outside the city walls. On the floor of the old quarry they found an outcropping of stone a few metres high, that the masons had passed over because it was cracked. This, the Christians of Jerusalem said, was Calvary, the “stone which the builders rejected.”

A little to the west, the quarry ended in a high vertical wall which, as was customary in the first century, had been honeycombed with horizontal grave shafts. Was there any question about which was the grave? Absolutely not. It had to be this one, they told Helena. So they set to work again, quarrying away the entire rock face to leave that one tomb standing free.

Then, to the east, there was an area where the floor of the quarry sloped steeply down, forming a cistern. At the bottom they found some pieces of wood, which Helena declared to be the wood of the cross on which Jesus had died.

Helena had a great church built over Calvary, the tomb, and the cistern – now become the chapel of the Holy Cross. Relics of the cross were embedded in the altar that faced the empty tomb. The church was called Anastasia – the Resurrection. It was dedicated on September 14, in the year 335; and ever since the Church has kept this day as Holy Cross Day.

The Anastasia was destroyed by the Calif Hakim and then rebuilt on a much smaller scale by the Crusaders, and renamed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

My favourite part is the steps leading down to the Chapel of the Holy Cross, because the walls along the steps are covered with little crosses that the Crusaders, those “soldiers of the cross” had carved into the stone. It’s as if they wanted to say: I was here; and I claim this place for Christ and Christ’s cross, as Christ and his cross have claimed me.

I told that story, at somewhat greater length, at the ordination of a friend a few years ago. Hers had been a long journey to ordination as a deacon, and went on for several years before she agreed to be ordained priest.

I called the Anastasia a parable of how God works with us. A parable of vocation. God comes to us and says, “I want to dig right here.” We say, “Here? There’s nothing here worth the effort of clearing away the rubble. Why don’t you try just over there a bit? Try that person instead. I’m sure the digging will be much easier there, the soil much less stony.”

But, like those people in Jerusalem, God points, “right here.” God digs away the rubble to find the place in us where death gives way to life, to find what we think of as dry wood but he knows is the tree of life.

God is always doing that, pointing and saying “right here,” in moments of conversion, in baptism, in the call to ordination or to the religious life, or to other vocation in the church and in society, always saying, “here my life meets your death and transforms the world. Here have I carved my cross, here I proclaim, ‘I am here,’ and I will not be shut out.”

And the rubble gets pushed aside, our objections, our reasons why it won’t work, why we aren’t worthy, drowned out by God’s declaration, “I chose you; in your weakness is my strength.”

The Rev. Canon Bill Morrison is a retired priest of the Diocese of British Columbia and a good friend and supporter of the Sisters’ ministry in Victoria.

Soil for Ministry: A Journey in Two Parts (cont.)

Part 2

The pull to go to the Convent had become consuming. I felt a strong need to be set apart from the world so that the Spirit of God could do its work of sanctification within me. I didn’t know at first if I was physically strong enough to complete the program, but by God’s grace, and with a whole lot of love from the Sisters and my two beloved fellow Companions, I began a year in the Companions Program that I will always cherish.

Once I arrived, I discovered that this “hospital” I had come to for a spiritual overhaul was even more than I expected.

The other Companions and I prayed and worshipped, both privately and corporately with the Sisters. We took classes together and read books together. We studied the Rule of St. Benedict. And we looked at what life in Christ is really all about, what it means to love God with all our hearts and to love his people as ourselves. We learned about Lectio Divina, and we met in groups to practice different forms of prayer. Day by day, a space was made for me to be open and to share how I felt. I found out that being open and vulnerable, while risky, was necessary if I wanted to be made whole.

God helped me to realize during my time in the Companions Program that for now I could set aside some of my questions. First I needed to focus on my relationship with God. I came to see that along the previous leg of my life’s journey, some of the ideas I had picked up about God were wrong. I had taken bits and pieces of scripture and turned them into what I believed was true. I had this image in my mind of a God that punishes. This image of a punishing God had not helped when I came up against the biggest spiritual struggle of my life. Instead of being able to turn to God when faced with tragedy, I believed that I had been abandoned because I had failed.

Day by day, living here in the Convent began to change this. We prayed together. The Sisters and the other two Companions loved me and prayed for me. They shared scriptures, songs, and videos that were meaningful to them. I was accepted by all of them as I was, and for the first time, I did not feel I needed to do or be anyone else but me. More than that, I realized that this was the person God also loved and wanted and waited to be with. I found out that God is love.

Maria in kitchen 2 c

Here in the Convent, there is rhythm and balance. There is time to worship. In a wonderful and inexplicable way, the rhythm of life here even givens time back. There is time here to seek God’s face, and to soak in the rich meaning and symbolism of the liturgy. My ears actually hear differently here.

Life at the Convent has helped me to understand true freedom and real peace. It is a life that restores to wholeness through a common bond of unity and purpose. It puts relationships in perspective. We want to see everyone as Jesus sees them. We want to love them as He has loved us. We work together contemplatively and with purpose: To show hospitality to all. To fight for justice and peace. To speak for those who do not have a voice.  To build relationships on the strong foundation that we are all God’s children. And to glorify God in all that we say and do and are.

In July, I was admitted as a postulant. I believe that God called me, and brought me here to set myself apart, to equip me with instruction, and to send me forth with a mission to show to others the care and healing that I myself freely received.

Maria Potestio
Postulant, SSJD

Soil for Ministry: A Journey in Two Parts

EA & MariaPart 1

I believe that the monastic life is soil for ministry. Here I have found fertile soil for the cultivation of the fruits of the Spirit. To be still and to listen. To be. Here I hear the words of the Hymn by Carol Owens: “…freely, freely you have received, freely, freely give. Go in my name and because you believe, others will know that I live.”

This place is a school and a hospital for the soul. Within these walls are people that demonstrate with their lives the power of God’s love. It is the power that saves people’s souls. I know because it saved mine.

I first visited St. John’s Convent in July of 2016, when I attended the Women at a Crossroads Program. During Women at a Crossroads, I learned that the vows my parents made on my behalf at my baptism were to be a foundation for my life in Christ. When I renewed my Baptismal vows at the end of the three-and-a-half week program, I knew that I was embarking on a great journey, though I didn’t know what lay ahead.

Following the conclusion of Women at a Crossroads, I underwent a series of life-changing events that led to an exhaustion beyond belief. I was already living in this shadow when I lost my brother and my son within ten days of each other. Now total darkness came. I had lost all. Father, three brothers, and my son.

I felt like I had been hit by a train.

This loss called everything I had ever thought into question. I had never had much courage, and now, the courage that I did have was shattered. Worse, everything I had ever believed about God seemed to vanish. The beliefs that I had once cherished became like foreign thoughts. My faith had suffered serious trauma. I needed spiritual surgery. I needed a hospital.

I returned to St John’s Convent in February for a Lenten quiet day led by the Rev. Stephen Kirkegaard. The topic was God’s Peace in a Troubled World. It was a message I really needed to hear. We spoke about the prisons we build for ourselves. How in our efforts to save ourselves we build walls so high that we block ourselves in, away from everyone and everything. And we spoke about how God can break through these walls and break into our prisons.

You can imagine how my exhausted and groping soul clung to these words. All I heard was “God can break in.” This kindled a spark within me.

We spoke about seeing our calling with the eyes of our heart as in Ephesians 1:18. I had long felt a call to the religious life, but up to that point, everything had seemed to point me away from pursuing that call.

We spoke about how the Spirit sent by the Father in Jesus’ name will reveal all things, and in an Affirmation prayer, we prayed together:

God make haste to help me.
Sow the seeds in my heart
And open the eyes of my heart
That I might see again.
Amen.

I thought I had prayed genuine prayers before, but now I was hanging on for dear life. I believe that God heard that feeble and weak-kneed prayer that day. And when I applied for the Companions Program, I knew two things. The first was that nothing mattered except getting my relationship with God fixed. The second was that if God was going to help in any way, shape, or form, it would be here.

To be continued . . . 

Maria Potestio
Postulant, SSJD

Ask, Seek, Find

Twenty years ago last January I received an invitation from the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine to be part of a group of women who, for whatever reason, and at whatever age, found themselves at a “Crossroads”, wanting some prayerful time-out to discern what-in-the-world God might be calling them to next. In a way, the invitation echoed a passage from Luke’s Gospel: “Ask, and it shall be given you, search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you.” This of course is the invitation Jesus extends to all who would be his disciples, those looking for a way to live with authenticity and purpose.

We were offered an “enjoyable and challenging opportunity to participate in community living, to experience a healthy balance of life; time to deepen our relationship with God through regular prayer and meditation, reading, classes, and individual mentoring with a Sister; space to explore vocation as a way to live out our Baptismal call, as lay or ordained persons, in or outside the Church and to gain insight into how to discern one’s call to a particular life or ministry.”  What a generous invitation!

Ask, search and knock are three metaphors for petitionary prayer. True petitionary prayer is an act of exploration that seeks to discover God’s call and also the grace to accomplish it. They are all, for those who study grammar, present imperatives, the tense of “continuing action” as in: keep on asking, keep on searching, keep on knocking and do so faithfully, being assured that what we ask, will be answered; what we search for, will be found and what we feel we are knocking  against, will be opened to us. We are not asking an unfriendly neighbour, but One who is like a loving parent – though One infinitely more loving than we can ever really imagine. We need to be realistic though: God responds to our needs, not our fantasies. As one writer has commented, “Pray for a cherry-red sports-car, and God may answer your prayer by granting you the wisdom to make a more mature request.”

The month-long exploration had its ups and downs, highs and lows, thinking and re-thinking. We learned about prayer in a place of unceasing prayer. We learned various ways to pray: using Scripture as a basis for our prayer, using the name of Jesus as our prayer, finding ways through meditative postures or walking to give ourselves totally into God’s embrace, opening ourselves to hear the still small voice of the One who has always known us

Jesus’ image of the loving parent reminds us, as did C.S. Lewis and Kierkegarrd, that prayer does not change God; it changes the one who prays. The prescription to ask, seek and knock is preceded by what we now refer to as the Lord’s Prayer, which as Christians, has become the model for us for all our prayer. In it, we find all of Jesus’ most fundamental teachings: the primacy of love over hate, forgiveness over vindictiveness and, above all, the summons to unite our desire to that of God’s. It is the framework that encourages us to look beyond our own needs to the needs of others and to our needs in relationship with others. Once we take our focus off what we think we want, we can more clearly discern what God wants for us.

In these last twenty years I’ve discovered discerning God’s call is not necessarily an easy task. Nor is it a “one-time” task, but rather a daily, prayerful, life-long, on-going pilgrimage as the marvellous road unfolds before us.

The Rev. Frances Drolet-Smith
Oblate, SSJD

We’re Glad You’re Our Neighbour

 

There is a sign in the grass just outside the front door of St. John’s Convent which proclaims “Wherever you are from we’re glad you’re our neighbour”. It’s an almost childish sentiment but it references the twofold law of love which states we must love God and neighbour and as such, it represents the community’s intention to genuinely recognize all those around us as our neighbours.

This past week, as Toronto absorbed the shock of an horrific attack a short walk from that same front door, an attack which left 10 dead and many more injured and traumatized, we were once again made aware of our many connections within our local community and further afield. Emails, calls, and messages came in from people who wanted us to know they were upholding us, and all those affected, in their prayers. We in turn prayed for the victims, their families and friends and for the first responders. We prayed for all the people who stopped to help and for the young man who drove the van.

As I prayed with my sisters, aware of all the people in the city, the country, and around the world praying with us, I was reminded of a phrase often attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” I thought of our prayers as tiny, flickering candle flames together transforming the darkness the attack had caused.

 

 

The two disciples on the road to Emmaus encountered the risen Christ on their journey. That ordinary, dusty walk became for them a pilgrimage, a physical experience which spiritually transformed them. A prayer walk down Yonge Street this past Monday, marking one week since the attack, was also an experience of meeting God’s love in each other. May we all be open to see the reality of resurrection life in the sisters and brothers we travel with on our own pilgrimages through life.

Sr. Wendy Grace Greyling

Rabboni

Easter mornings were once filled with joyful greetings such as, “Alleluia, the Lord is Risen”, with the joyful response, “He is Risen indeed, Alleluia”, a word that had not been heard throughout the sombre days of Lent. In my private prayer and devotions through Easter my heart spends hours with the faithful beside the empty tomb, and I hear or feel the almost-breathless, almost-unspoken, loud whispered “Rabboni” of Mary Magdalene, a dear friend of our Lord. Some have suggested, or wanted, something sexual in that word, but there is far too much profound depth of love that touches one’s soul to imply anything less. How very much I pray that my Saviour may look upon me, call me by name—then I may know that all is well between us once more.

Many years ago I heard a soloist sing, in Handel’s Messiah, the aria ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’—my soul was lost in awe and wonder by her voice. Every Easter since then, in my meditation and devotions around Easter morning, I stand at the empty tomb with the faithful that includes Mary. I hear her whispered Rabboni that touches my soul; and in that precious moment Mary and the soloist become one oice pressing upon my heart and soul: I know that my Redeemer liveth. Rabboni, My Master!

My Easter is rich in glory. May Christianity’s triumphant Easter Alleluia bring its glory into every soul.

Thank you to SSJD Associate, the Rev. Canon C. Russell Elliott, Nova Scotia, for sharing this reflection with us.

A Summer Week with St. Benedict


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

June 25-29 at St. John’s Convent, 9:30 – 4:30 pm: spend a week learning about St. Benedict and the influence of his rule on contemporary Christians and new intentional communities. Sister Connie will teach this course at the Convent for Wycliffe College. Accommodation is available at the Convent, or people can attend as commuters. See the Wycliffe College website for registration information, as listed on the poster.

Download the poster:Flyer – Benedictine Spirituality

PRAY WITHOUT CEASING

Rublev Trinity
Rublev, Hopitality of Abraham, 15th century Russia

Have you Have you noticed how busy and distracted everyone is lately? Have you noticed how busy and distracted you’ve become lately? Busyness and distraction have become a way of life. How do we keep all the balls in the air – all the commitments in balance? How do you carve out time to pray when there are so many demands on your time?

Ronald Rolheiser, theologian and author once wrote “Distraction is normal in our culture. Contemplativeness, solitude and prayer are not.”

When I look at my own life, and listen to the lives of those around me, I am struck by how often I hear the phrase that has become a kind of mantra for many: “I’m so busy!” Perhaps the time for teaching – and practicing – the contemplative arts has never been more pertinent. On the other hand, ever since Eve and Adam left the Garden, it has been our sad refrain.

The Christian classic The Way of a Pilgrim chronicles the journey of an unnamed nineteenth-century Russian peasant. Following the tragic loss of his wife and livelihood, the pilgrim is propelled on a spiritual journey with nothing but a Bible, a prayer rope, and some dried bread, seeking an answer to his profound conundrum: how does one respond authentically to St. Paul’s prescription to “pray without ceasing”? (1 Thessalonians 5:17)  His quest sets him wandering, searching for someone to teach him how to master such a seemingly impossible assignment.

At the very heart of The Way of the Pilgrim is the Jesus Prayer: “O Lord Jesus Christ, Son Of God, have mercy upon me a sinner!”  Known in the Orthodox Church as “the prayer of the heart.” and dating back to at least the 4th century Egyptian desert, these simple words have been a mainstay for Orthodox Christians. This humble prayer is aided when prayed with a prayer rope in hand. First made by monks for their own use, prayer ropes were later adopted by those outside the monastery. While we may be tempted to think of prayer ropes as an Eastern version of the Rosary, they are actually quite different.

Prayer Rope.jpgPrayer ropes are usually made of wool, sheared from sheep – a reminder that we belong to Christ, the Good Shepherd. While they can be made in different colours, black – the colour of mourning – is most commonly used, for in prayer we mourn the sins which separate us from God and our neighbour. Some prayer ropes include a tassel which is customarily used to dry the tears shed in sorrow for one’s sins. For some, this tassel also symbolizes Heaven, which can only be found through the cross which, in the rope, precedes the tassel.

The person praying says the Jesus Prayer for each knot on the rope. Often the rope is 33 knots long but they come in all different lengths. In The Way of the Pilgrim, the pilgrim said the prayer 2,000, then 6,000, then 12,000 times a day. Is 12,000 Jesus Prayers better than 2,000? It is not the quantity of the prayers that is important but rather the quality, the love with which the prayer is said and the faithfulness with which it is practiced. The pilgrim prayed much because that was his “heart’s desire.” Every prayer is an act of love, offered to the Author of Love, who waits expectantly for us and for our acceptance of his Love. Numbers have nothing to do with this kind of devotion or with a living relationship with Jesus.

When our hearts are restless and our minds wandering, the knots on the prayer rope can help us to focus on the words of the prayer. As our thumb and forefinger continuously move over the knots, our heart continuously cries out its plaintive words.  Some years ago now I was gifted a prayer rope by Bishop Henry Hill who devoted much of his life to study and dialogue with the Orthodox community. Its soft, well-worn texture feels reassuring in my hands, and in a way that I do not fully understand, helps move the prayer from my lips to my heart.

Perhaps what is old can be new again.  In our on-going quest to draw closer to Christ, I wonder whether the time has come for us to slow the pace, lose the distractions, leave the busyness behind and make a pilgrimage back to praying, without ceasing, the prayer of our hearts.

The Rev. Frances Drolet-Smith is Rector of St. Alban’s Anglican Church, Dartmouth N.S.
and Oblate of SSJD

O EMMANUEL

The “Great O” antiphon for December 23 is “O Emmanuel.
(See an explanation of the Great O’s in the blog post for December 16.)

From Matthew 1: 18 – 23

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’

EMMANUEL the law-giver, the peace-bringer, the heart-healer.  We long for a presence among us that can bring us to something we call ‘home’, where we are at one with our deepest longing.  You are our God, come and save us – from ourselves, from our selfishness, our pride and arrogance, from our self-pity and our self-doubt.  Come and save us Emmanuel, from the fears that hold us in the dark: our fears of others who are different than we are, our fears of changes and issues that clash.  Emmanuel – it is to us: to us that a child is born – and the government shall be upon his shoulders, and his name will be called ‘wonderful counselor, mighty and everlasting God, Prince of Peace.  To us does God reveal tenderness in the person of Jesus.  To us does God show might and power, in the fragile gift of a child born to a woman.  To us.  To our very selves is Jesus given!  God takes on flesh so that every home becomes holy, every human person becomes the Christ, and all food and drink becomes a sacrament. The very gift of Christmas is our own call to empty ourselves in order to be made pregnant with the Word.  We are responsible for the gift – and our task is to nurture it and love it into live.  Each of us are called to mother-forth the Christ given to us as gift.  St. Bernard said “what use is it to us if Christ be born in Bethlehem and not in our own hearts?”  We are called to bring Christ to birth in the world through the way we live with others.  We too are Theotokos – Christ bearers to the world. (Sr. Doreen McGuff)

From “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”:

O come, O come Emmanuel!
And ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.

O KING OF THE NATIONS

The “Great O” antiphon for December 22 is “O King (or Desire) of the Nations.”
(See an explanation of the Great O’s in the blog post for December 16.)

From Jeremiah 30: 7 – 11a

Alas! that day is so great
there is none like it;
it is a time of distress for Jacob;
yet he shall be rescued from it.

On that day, says the Lord of hosts, I will break the yoke from off his neck, and I will burst his bonds, and strangers shall no more make a servant of him. But they shall serve the Lord their God and David their king, whom I will raise up for them.

But as for you, have no fear, my servant Jacob, says the Lord,
and do not be dismayed, O Israel;
for I am going to save you from far away,
and your offspring from the land of their captivity.
Jacob shall return and have quiet and ease,
and no one shall make him afraid.
For I am with you, says the Lord, to save you;

KING OF THE NATIONS and desire of our hearts – amidst all the senseless violence of life you are the cornerstone that binds us into a home for God.  God is the true desire of every heart, the ache of loneliness that plagues us all our lives, even in the most intimate loving encounters.  But how many of us human creatures realize that we are created to be so completely ‘at one’ with God, that our deep longing for love and union cannot ever be fully met outside of that at-one-ment?  And so we pray that Jesus, the cornerstone, will bind us into a home for God..  We are homes for God, each one of us, this is the single most important truth about us: inclusiveness not rejection is God’s theme song for us and God’s desire for our hearts in our relationships with each other.  There is no other criteria for a mutuality of love between the peoples of this earth other than this: we are one-ed in God by our shared humanity.  We pray to be at one – to make all nations one – to bind us together in a mutuality of love and respect: in our families, in our communities, in our churches, in the world.  All our roots are inter-tangled.  In our deepest selves we know that every struggle helps free those things we most cherish and hope for.  How many there are who have no realization of their own intrinsic loveliness of being, who do not understand the endless ache of their inner being, and who try to fill that longing through the accumulation of things, the exercise of power, the search for success or the endless quest for the ultimate ‘experience’ to make meaning of life.  In the darkness of the night – we sing “O Ruler of the Nations and true Desire of our hearts!  You are the cornerstone inviting us all into a home for God.  Come, Lord Jesus. (Sr. Doreen McGuff)

From “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”:

O come, Desire of nations, bind
in one the hearts of humankind.
O bid our bitter conflict cease,
and be for us our Prince of Peace.
Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.